Fueling the future

Wind farm in southern Minnesota

Great River Energy’s carbon dioxide emissions declined almost 30 percent from 2005 to 2016 due in part to investments in renewable energy.

For decades, consumers have been encouraged by their utilities to incorporate energy efficiency into their everyday lives because the less energy they used meant less energy was generated at power plants.

While energy efficiency will continue to be important, it may be only one facet of a new overall initiative that will keep power flowing to residences and businesses while further reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

Mounting research suggests that “electrifying” certain parts of the economy – using electricity in ways traditionally powered by fossil fuels such as natural gas, propane, gasoline and diesel – is needed to achieve ambitious carbon emissions reduction goals world-wide.

This concept, dubbed “environmentally beneficial electrification,” has gained momentum among Great River Energy and its member cooperatives, and there seems to be a growing consensus in favor of it among other organizations. For example, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab finds that the key to meeting necessary GHG goals is by “widespread electrification of passenger vehicles, and building space and water heating.”

“There are three key characteristics of environmentally beneficial electrification: it saves consumers money, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and improves overall efficiency of the electric grid. For an electric end-use to be considered environmentally beneficial it must meet at least one of the characteristics and do no harm to the others,” said Gary Connett, director, member services and marketing at Great River Energy. “While consumers may use more electricity, there will actually be a reduction in emissions put into the atmosphere.”

This is due to the grid becoming greener as utilities incorporate more renewable sources of energy into their generation portfolios. Great River Energy, for instance, purchases the output from eight wind projects in the Midwest totaling 468 megawatts, and also built 650 kilowatts of solar energy installations throughout Minnesota.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the carbon dioxide emission rate of U.S. electricity generation declined by 21 percent between 2005 and 2015, primarily due to generation from coal being offset by increased generation from lower-emitting sources, such as wind and solar.

“That’s emissions efficiency. If you put an electric water heater in your home, the emissions will decline every year. The appliance can’t get any more efficient than it is, but the fuel heating your water – electricity – is getting cleaner and producing fewer emissions,” Connett said.

A Brattle Group report published in January 2017 indicates that significant reductions in GHG emissions to achieve long-term deep decarbonization must come not just from power generation, but also by electrifying water and space heating in addition to electrification of the transportation sector. The report illustrates that full electrification of these areas could lead to a 72 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from 2015 levels.

Great River Energy and its member cooperatives are taking advantage of resources becoming more renewable and less carbon intensive by implementing efforts such as Revolt, a program that fuels electric vehicles with wind energy; a pilot battery electric school bus program ; an electric thermal space and water heating storage network; and promoting heat pumps for space and water heating.

While Great River Energy will continue to invest in cleaner energy resources in the future, it will be equally important for it and its member cooperatives to encourage the use of electricity in a most efficient and cost effective manner that not only saves energy, but reduces overall GHG emissions as well.